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“Once someone gets sick, it’s too late”

For nearly 40 years, Pat Miles was a broadcast fixture on the Twin Cities airwaves, anchoring the evening news on WCCO and KARE and capping his career hosting a daily radio show on WCCO-AM.

When she remarried in 2006, Miles retired. She and her husband, Minneapolis attorney Charles “Bucky” Zimmerman, settled in Arizona.

After 13 years, their romance came to an abrupt end when Zimmerman died of pancreatic cancer. Her death plunged Miles into crippling grief accompanied by unforeseen financial and legal complications.

Now 72, Miles is co-author of a book, “Before All Is Said and Done: Practical Advice for Living and Dying Well.” Frank, raw and full of her hard-won knowledge, it details what Miles said she wished she had known before she was widowed.

This includes his appeal to others to “not be in denial and stupid like I was” to get their house in order.

Miles spoke to us about his heartbreak, his transition and his next chapter. Conversation edited for length.

Q: In your book, you are honest about your mistakes. You are an award-winning journalist and your husband was an accomplished lawyer. Are people surprised you got into such trouble when he died?

A: We thought we were smart and sophisticated, and we weren’t. We did our will and our trust, but I didn’t pay attention like I should have. My husband was a complicated, successful man with investments in some things I didn’t know about. We haven’t talked about that stuff. I didn’t know the account numbers, and I wasn’t on all the accounts, so after he died, they didn’t even want to talk to me.

Not knowing what I was doing cost me a lot of money and put my life on hold. If I could do anything, I would have really listened when Bucky tried to talk to me about finances.

Q: How was your life together?

A: Bucky was this Renaissance man who wanted to travel, to go, to do. He wasn’t going to miss anything; my challenge was to follow him. We have been all over the world. Three years ago he organized and planned a cruise with my two daughters and their loved ones. He got up last night and said how much he loved having this family, how much we all meant to him.

But he was tired during this trip and he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer the day we got back. He lived three months from diagnosis to death.

Q: Did you use that time to prepare yourself to be without him?

A: Once someone gets sick, it’s too late. You try to keep them alive, to go to chemo, to go to doctors. You feel the ground slip below and you try to steady your feet. You don’t ask about politics, banking and investments when someone is sick and on drugs.

Q: You write about how shocking it was to realize you were a widow.

A: When you’re grieving, you’re not normal and you can’t make good decisions. Grief is a whole other animal, changing the way you think, sleep, eat. When you try to deal with problems in what I call the dark fog of grief, you’re screwed.

I had friends who embraced me in my dark days, but others weren’t there. It’s a world of couples, and some people don’t want to get too close. I now know that this happens often. Women, in particular, are lost. Widowed men are more likely to be cared for.

Q: Why did you want to write this book?

A: I don’t want others to go down the rabbit hole I’ve gone down. I’m still angry that I was so stupid.

We don’t think, talk or plan the day we are going to die. It’s a cultural problem. If you don’t plan and organize, you leave a trail of problems.

The time has come for this, when all is well in your life. If you wait, it’s too late. Get ready and leave a good legacy. Do what Bucky and I didn’t and make it easier for the people you leave behind so they don’t have to worry about anything but missing you.

Q: What resources did you seek out when creating the book?

A: I have interviewed many widows who have been through this; we connected via the internet and on the phone. Sometimes we would sit and cry together. I also spoke to experts who give good advice on managing the financial, legal and medical aspects.

Q: Some of your suggestions for new widowers are quite simple.

A: I emphasize the importance of having a trusted advisor. I wish I had taken someone with me to every meeting, someone who could help me through the fog. I felt frozen, stuck, I had amnesia. When I couldn’t remember important details, I thought I was losing my mind.

Out of ignorance or arrogance. I ended up trusting people I shouldn’t have. Not everyone had my interests at heart.

Q: Another handy tip you offer is to keep a file containing confidential information.

A: On our last trip, Bucky took hundreds of photos on his phone. When he died, I didn’t know how to get into it. I guessed his code and put it in four times, then I was blocked. I never had these precious photos, and I never will. When someone is sick and dying, you don’t ask, “Can you write down all your passwords?” The time to get it is when everything is going well.

Q: Your marriage to Bucky Zimmerman crowned a rather unusual love story.

A: When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1978 to do the noon news at WCCO, I didn’t know anyone. I made a friend, and he was friends with Bucky and set us up on a blind date.

I was living in an apartment on Lake Harriet, and I had my roommate answer the door when Bucky showed up. I said, “If he doesn’t look well, tell him I’m sick. She said, “He’s fine. You can do it.”

We dated for a few years, but we were exhausted from our careers and broke up. We both got married, I had a family. We kept in touch casually.

Q: In the meantime, you suffered a setback in your private life that played out in public because of your role as a news anchor.

A: In the 90s, I faced a health crisis with eye problems. I had a small raised callus on my eyeball and a doctor decided I needed to have it removed. After that my eyeball grew up to my eyelid and it triggered an autoimmune disease. It went on for years; I had 16 surgeries and at one point my eye had to be sewn up for a year.

It was a traumatic time in my life. I think my eye problems ruined my marriage.

At that time Bucky was divorced and living in Santa Fe. He read about my eye problems in the newspaper and we reconnected over lunch when he was back in town. Something was still there for both of us. It was a second chance that felt like a miracle.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I recently became a grandmother; my daughter and son-in-law had a baby boy and named him Miles – isn’t that a thrill! They live in Ely, so I’ll be in Minnesota a lot.

An expert I interviewed told me that when you are widowed, your life becomes smaller. Before that, I had a great life; Bucky and I had a great life together. I’m working on understanding this new chapter on my own, imagining myself without Bucky. I’m not there yet, believe me. I think my next book will be called “So what do I do now?”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.

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